Anyone who’s seen the inside of a high school has probably read The Importance of Being Earnest. Oscar Wilde’s razor sharp lines are so well-known that audiences can feel deja vu. (Remember this one? “All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That’s his.”)
This familiarity means many an Earnest production has fallen into the dark hole of predictability. But Roundabout Theater’s Broadway version —filmed in HD and screened as part of the Seattle International Film Festival—keeps things lively. And not just because actor/director Brian Bedford is wearing a dress.
Yup, Lady Bracknell’s played by a man. And he steals the spotlight. Lemon-faced, stiff-backed, and swathed in brocade, Bedford’s fabulous pomposity elicits applause at each entrance, an end-of-show standing ovation, and belly-laughs with single words (“Exploded?”). He cites Margaret Thatcher as a major artistic inspiration.
The rest of the cast was strong, if not flawless. You might recognize the men—Santino Fontana (Algie) and David Furr (Jack)—from their Jersey Shore Gone Wilde YouTube parodies. They’re just as fun on stage, even if Fontana, bursting with the boyish delight of Ferris Bueller, was occasionally overpowered by Furr’s effortless delivery. He could make an insurance company’s rejection letter sound sincere.
The women were less balanced. Next to the wide-eyed charm of Charlotte Parry’s Cecily, Jessie Austrian’s Gwendolen is studied, every sweep of her skirt looking relentlessly practiced. And her voice! “Shrill” would be an understatement. She should take a cue from the better-endowed Bedford, whose best comic moments are the few times he lets his voice fall into it’s deeper natural register.
One more point of contention: the world’s dreariest set. While the cartoon-like design was engaging, the color was not. The words “dishwater grey” come to mind.
Initially, I was doubtful about filmed theater, but the multi-camera filming was surprisingly satisfying. The production, still running live in New York City while showing on screen, also took advantage of its new medium: Three mini-segments presented by David Hyde Pierce show snippets of life backstage, a time-lapse look at Bedford’s transformation from a “man about town to a scary old lady,” and a brief Wilde analysis with Alfred Molina and Michael Hackett. It all feels a bit staged, but it’s an interesting idea. There’s also a ten minute intermission to make you and your box of popcorn feel like you’re at a real, live theater.
SIFF’s The Importance of Being Earnest plays thru June 12.